Memorialization of Lynching
“The Gospel According to James” made the lynching immortalized in the iconic photograph seem so concrete; Bloodied, tattered clothing, shots fired across the stage, Cameron upon his knees praying to God to rescue him from the lynch mob, such loathing, such terrible violence, so exquisitely portrayed. Thomas and Abe had been made real, human, and their suffering could not be swept under the rug. The violence and racial tension expressed in the Marion Lynching could not truly be laid to rest until the people of Marion had appropriately remembered the victims of its forefathers’ crime. People could not appropriately understand why things are as they are now without a window into their past; I set out to investigate: Why did no memorial exist? What healing might one achieve?
Reluctant to dive immediately into what is still a tender topic, I began looking into what James Cameron accomplished in his lifetime to the end of completing a memorial. An acquaintance of Cameron’s while he was present in Marion, Bobbie Owensby, disavowed any knowledge of Cameron planning to build his Black Holocaust Museum in the jailhouse, as presented in “The Gospel”, citing his distaste for his birth town. (Owensby)
He instead constructed the Museum in his adopted hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1988. Despite relative success in compiling relics of blacks’ oppression in the United States, it lacked any major funding outside of Cameron’s personal resources and limited donations, and for this reason, it closed “Temporarily” in 2008. (Sharif)
The failure of the Black Holocaust Museum discouraged me greatly; the Museum was built in a town in which Cameron himself recognized a significant racial tolerance; Yet it had collapsed after 20 years for a lack of funds, not to mention with a lack of any clear answer as to what emotions accelerated its death, if any but for apathy. I was left with little to help understand the task at hand in Marion. Looking for a possibly more revealing example, I looked more into a notable lynching memorial in a little-known town, Duluth, Minnesota.
The 1920 Duluth Lynching began much like the Marion Lynching - a girl, 19 year old Irene Tusken and her man, 18 year old James Sullivan claiming rape and assault against six black laborers in the James Robinson Circus. Though a physician’s inspection of Tusken showed no sign of rape or assault, rumors began to spread throughout the town that Tusken had died from the incident. The six men said to be responsible were imprisoned in the Duluth city jail in the local police station. Thousands of whites gathered outside, armed to the teeth, pelting the facade of the jail and took six men, including Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. Not a shot was fired by police, who had been ordered not to resist.A false trial was held for the six men, and Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were found guilty by the mob of raping Irene Tusken. They were then beaten and hung on a lamp post in the main thoroughfare of the town; the mob thereafter dispersed. The men in the mob believed to be responsible for the killings either slipped through the fingers of authorities or were acquitted by sympathetic juries; ultimately, the only resulting convictions were related to charges of rioting.
Shame and outrage pervaded the town after the tragedy, the local newspaper calling for the “elimination of every yellow member” of the police department that had stood aside for the lynch mob. ("Duluth Lynchings")
The emotions felt stuck to the town, evidencing themselves well in a portion of Duluth-native Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row”. He speaks bitterly in the lyrics of the selling of copies of photograph of the lynching, having made clear its connection to his hometown in mentioning “the circus is in town," referring to the James Robinson Circus. He speaks particularly scathingly about the police commissioner, the effective enabler of the incident:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row(Dylan)
The persistence of these emotions as the nation moved forward into an age of better race relations resulted in the push for a memorial in the town; the Clayton, Jackson, McGhie memorial was completed and dedicated in 2003 to the three namesake victims of the 1920 lynching. Despite this success, in itself it did not provide me with clear answers as to what motivations helped it finally come together. Erika Doss, in her book “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America”, largely attributes the memorial to shame, adding that it ‘animates’ the shame of the city’s past. What use would shame be in helping a city to remember its wrongdoing? What could any such thing demand but guilt, inflaming racial tension in those that possess it, and no sense of improvement in those that don’t? The Marion memorial, were there to be one, would need to reflect responsibility on the part of the townspeople that formed the mob that senselessly murdered two young black men. Shame would not serve to teach a lesson, but only to smack the wrist of those immediately responsible, and leave the town in a state of disconnection from its past.
Responsibility, accountability for the past, though, is a somewhat remote concept for the city of Marion. A kind of terrible silence has been cultivated in the town; even as the son of a local historian, I did not hear much of or fully understand the implication of the lynching as I was raised in the town whose history is stained by it, nothing at all of any person that took the implications of the evil act upon themselves. In an attempt to better understand how accountability would factor into a memorial, I turned to information about another racially-driven massacre in Rosewood, Florida.
January 1, 1923 Fannie Taylor, age 22, reported to the Levy County sheriff that she had been assaulted and raped by a black man. A mob of 400 to 500 men soon after gathered, and went hunting for Jesse Hunter, a chain gang escapee they had made a scapegoat for the alleged assault. Hunter was not found during the raid, but a week’s violence resulted in the death of six blacks, two whites, and the utter destruction of the community of Rosewood.
Families fled the community, some changing their names in an effort to forget the incident, leaving behind a plot with little to remember the violence, a solitary historical marker on Florida State Road 24. Since the massacre, $2.1 million dollars in reparations were paid by the state after the hotly-contested passage of Florida House Bill 591, and Sugarhill Cemetery outside of Riviera Beach was rededicated to the victims. (Hayes)
Whilst comparably tremendous reparations might seem like a success for the victims of this tragedy, it was a resounding failure in its intention; James Peter, attorney for the State of Florida in “Rosewood Victims vs. the State of Florida”, argued that indicted members of law enforcement - Sheriff Robert Elias Walker, responsible for the posse that razed Rosewood and Governor Hardee, responsible for leveraging authority to Walker - had been dead for far too many years for the State of Florida to be obligated to make reparations. In addition to the accountability-refutative nature of the opposition, those pushing for the reparations such as Special Master Richard Hixson, director of testimony for the Florida Legislature, deemed them necessary out of “moral obligation,” while not endorsing Peter’s position, quietly allowing it to endure. (Bassett)
At first it appeared as though good was done in Florida with the payment of $2.1 million in reparations to survivors and families of survivors of the massacre, but when taken into consideration with the unquestioned defense of maintaining that the current generation was not responsible for the doing of their forefathers, it seems nearly like an attempt to bribe away the modern Floridian’s social accountability for the event.
Such a solution must be avoided at all costs in Marion; accountability must be felt on the part of the populace of the town for the brutal, racially-driven murders that occurred here. An attempt to reach a kind of accountability was once attempted locally through reconciliation of churches affiliated with adversarial racial groups, but with arguably shorter-term results.
A coalition of more than 20 ministers came together, signing a document explicitly apologizing for the events of the 1930 lynching, committing themselves to “the task of reconciliation between all races and ethnic groups in Marion, IN,” to create a community which is welcoming, nurturing, and “safe.” The last statement had special significance in Marion at the time, which had seen a great deal of violence including the rape of a teenager, the strangulation of an elderly woman, and a fatal firearm assault on a man as he was driving.
In an attempt to stem the tide of violence, the ministers came together and exchanged apologies for the violence, and made an attempt to unite the community in remembrance of the lynching with a plaque for the city courthouse, and monuments for the unmarked graves of Shipp and Smith. The Shipp and Smith families, however, came out in protest against the grave markers, fearing an ‘exhumation’ of their corpses by the Klan, and discrepancies in their families’ accounts of the murder of Deeter with that of Cameron’s. Despite the initial approval of a plaque within the courthouse dedicated to the victims of the lynching, support waned with the disapproval of their families, and the plaque was revoked.
It came as a surprise to the whole community when Carl Deeter, nephew to Claude, came forward and apologized for the lynching; the African-American community accepted his apology and returned with one of their own.
The end of the event was held on the steps of the Marion courthouse, with communal Christian worship, attended by more than a thousand residents. As displayed by Edward L. Rice in his post-Reconciliation Day letter addressing Larry Batchelor, the assembled ministers felt as though they had accomplished much, bringing greater peace to their hometown; though Rice also expressed a subtle reservation, stating the “fellowship...should not be done once and then forgotten.” (Batchelor. "Dear God")
This reconciliation was a significant step forward for social accountability for the lynching in the Christian community, but the city as a whole was pessimistic, surveys conducted by the Chronicle-Tribune revealing a silent opposition to a memorial or plaque of any kind. Through the efforts of Cameron, the Duluth Memorial, and the lack of one thereof for the victims of Rosewood, it has made been utterly clear the necessity of an establishment of a communal sense of accountability for past crimes in the production of a memorial. Yet, when framed alongside local efforts, despite being significant and virtually unparalleled steps forward for race relations, it makes clear a number of still glaring issues: No accountability has been taken for the two separate ‘white’ and ‘black’ myths that exist, so deemed by active community member and reconciliation participant Reverend Batchelor. (Batchelor)
For true progress in our local racial dialogue, the memorial of the lynching must reflect an understanding of this generation's responsibility to account for their forefather's crime. Without such, it serves to do little.
- Batchelor. "Dear God, Please Save Our Town". Compiled 2003-2004.
- Batchelor. Personal interview. May 24 2011.* Owensby, Bobby. Personal Interview. May 24 2011
- Doss, Erika. "Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America". University of Chicago Press, 2010. Google Books. Web. Pgs. 253-255.
- Dylan, Bob. "Desolation Row". Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia, 1965, Vinyl.
- Herald-Tribune. Hayes, Ron. Jan 7, 2008. <http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20080107/NEWS/801070330>
- LexisNexis. Bassett, C. Jeanne. Fall, 1994. <https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?
- Minnesota Historical Society. <http://collections.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/>
- Sharif, Durhams. Jul 30, 2008. <http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/29565784.html>
This article was written by Evan Munn during spring 2011 for Mr. Munn's ACP U.S. History class at Marion High School. Thanks to Rev. Larry Batchelor and Bobbie Owensby for their help.